Deputy Features Editor, Hitanshi Badani, discusses some of the major challenges that international students face as a result of domestic politics, from economic crisis in Venezuela through to popular protests in Hong Kong.
Before I arrived for the very first time in St Andrews in September 2020, I left home with a grave feeling of helplessness; the COVID-19 pandemic, with all of its problems, highlighted the severe patriarchal nature of rural India with cases of rape and domestic abuse sky-rocketing and the judiciary periodically acquitting abusers. However, over the three months I spent in Scotland, I found myself growing increasingly detached from the myriad socio-political crises back home. With the extensive discourse on issues like BoJo’s poor pandemic management, free school meals, and the US presidential elections in multiple student publications and social media platforms, I found it easier, and to be completely honest, less emotionally draining, to dissociate myself from the humanitarian crises in India.
India – On Ignorance and Responsibility
However, in late 2020, the central government passed three Farm Acts, allegedly without fair consultation from the largest stake-holders – small-time farmers, several of whom were afraid that these acts promoted the welfare of larger industrial farmers and corporations at their expense. This led to many months of ongoing protests in the national capital, the suppression of which marked serious human rights violations.
It was only when these issues were picked up by smaller international publications that I became aware of them and actively informed myself about them. I was reminded that such a mindset of wishful ignorance was unsustainable and irresponsible. It was only when friends, families, and acquaintances were directly impacted by the censorship, WiFi cuts and violence in the streets, that I realised that while it might be easier to disengage from geographically distant issues, I see ignorance as a violation of my responsibility towards those who do not have the same privileges as I do.
While this distancing, in part, may have been an active effort, it was significantly aided by the lack of conversation surrounding it within the University community. While I acknowledge that as a Scottish university, local politics is undoubtedly the centre of conversation, I also believe that at times, students at St Andrews tend to treat international political issues as “pieces of news”, forgetting that they are real-time crises that might be disrupting the lives of other students around them, especially now that the majority of us are forced to stay home. After all, the student body comprises nearly 50% international students. This is no fault of their own; the British media has notoriously orientalised foreign crises, particularly those concerning non-European countries.
To investigate how certain domestic issues are impacting students of St Andrews in particular, The Saint interviewed several students from several different countries facing crisis and political turmoil.
Portugal – On Education & Perceptions of Home
The country of Portugal is witnessing an educational crisis. Previously, there existed a huge disparity between public and private education. For students at public schools, as a result of limited access to internet and computers, as well as the possible spread of COVID-19 in schools, the state decided that not only will schools be closed, but that it would be illegal for the time being to teach all grades right up to university level. While this law aimed to promote equality, it was imposed overnight and important exams for university students were disrupted. This incident reflects extensive disorganisation within the educational sector in Portugal.
The Saint interviewed Mafa Gaspar, a second-year Economics student from Portugal. For starters, such disorganization and a lack of equivalency with foreign institutions made it impossible for her to even consider studying in her own country. More importantly, however, Gaspar finds that this situation has affected her perceptions of her country. She found that as time went on, her negative view of the situation in her homeland transformed into a sense of personal superiority, both towards her country as a whole and, in particular, those with fewer opportunities. I, for one, can relate to this sentiment, characterised by a feeling of inadequacy and a revulsion towards the shortcomings of your own country. This can be problematic, often the root cause for brain-drains and negative self-perceptions.
Venezuela – On Socializing on a Visa
Venezuela is also undergoing an economic crisis due to hyperinflation. A large percentage of its population is living under extreme poverty. Moreover, there have been periodic regime changes and radical support and opposition each time. Whether this crisis has been caused by economic incompetence or an international ideological war against Venezuela, its widespread consequences and poor crisis management under Chavez seem evident.
The Saint spoke with María Matilde Morales, a student from Venezuela pursuing an MLitt in Cultural Narratives at the School of Modern Languages. María finds that staying away from home due to her inability to access Wi-Fi and study remotely has prevented her from staying in a place of comfort. It has also given her cause for concern regarding her inability to be at home when the risk of losing her loved ones to COVID is high. However, an important and ongoing problem she faced as a student was her sense of “living two lives”. She found that at university, with the existing negative stereotypes surrounding countries in South America, she often avoided conversations about Venezuela because she was afraid that this might feed into the negative image surrounding many South American countries and, by extension, her.
Morales suggests that as a community, local students must understand the impact that living in a different country on a short-term Visa might have on international relations. It can be incredibly stressful to realize how much your ability to call a place home is weakened and this can deeply affect one’s sense of belonging. Therefore, it is vital for international students to have a sense of community, safety, and support, and to engage not just with others in the same position but with the student body as a whole.
Hong Kong – On Diversity and Selective Outrage
In Hong Kong, the National Security Law passed in July 2020 that criminalises any subversion of or hate against the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the Central Chinese Government. This, along with the pandemic, severely restricted the movement and freedom of speech of dissenters. Freedom in Hong Kong has been regressing ever since, and prominent lawyers and activists like Nathan Law have been forced to flee to European countries.
The Saint interviewed a student from the city that preferred to remain anonymous. The youth have been at the fore of these protests and they found that having friends participating in and risking their lives for these demonstrations has caused a loss of focus and motivation, and sometimes even fear, worry, guilt, and sadness. The proliferation of the internet and social media as means of acquiring news has made it impossible for them to distance themselves from the crises.
They indicated that the majority of support for their mental health problems came from international students with similar experiences. They also found that the rest of the student community has been primarily interested in issues relating to western countries. In the context of the Hong Kong protests specifically, they believe that raising awareness of important dates such as the 4th of June vigil to commemorate those that died in the Tiananmen Square massacre, as well as simply following people like Joshua Worth on social media, would be a meaningful sign of support – a simple acknowledgement that authoritarianism is still rife in countries across Asia and must be dealt with.
Myanmar – On Force, Freedom, and Fear
A recent military coup took the country of Myanmar by storm in February 2021. Claims of election fraud led the Myanmar military to declare a state of emergency and detain both the President and State Counsellor. Writers, singers, parliamentarians and citizens have been arrested; communication services, televisions channels and the internet have been cut off to detach the capital city from the rest of the world. Any form of civil disobedience, dissent, and protest has been subverted by violent means, causing a huge number of casualties.
The Saint interviewed Shwan Myat Min, a first-year student of International Relations. Unlike the aforementioned crises, this one has had a direct impact on the academic and social lives of students from Myanmar. Blackouts, internet cut-outs, as well as the banning of key communication and networking applications have greatly impeded her ability to attend and focus during lectures and classes. Albeit via VPN, Liu makes an impressive effort to not just engage with her academics but also raise awareness on the severity of the crisis in Myanmar. However, the constant sound of sirens and protests, the sight of military tanks, and the fear of violence and civil arrest has taken a toll on her mental health. Her proximity to the rallies (she lives just minutes away from the city-centre), on top of her awareness of the violent and oppressive roots of the Myanmar army, have only exacerbated her fears.
Liu expressed satisfaction with the University’s prompt and accommodating response to her situation as well as faculty members’ willingness to help in any way possible. The fine in Myanmar for raising awareness via social media against the military starts at at least two years in jail. She has appealed to St Andrews students regardless of their nationality to help protest against the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar, even just through resharing posts on Instagram. They find international pressure to be one of few sources of hope for the citizens of Myanmar in restoring democracy.